A growing number of children are seen roaming on China's streets, but the government is striving to take substantial measures to help them find shelters and live healthy, normal lives.
The first center funded by the government and built especially for street children, the Children's Protection and Education Center of Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province has taken in 140 homeless children from 22 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions around China since it opened on March 22, 2002.
The center has so far helped 81 homeless children find their relatives.
"It is the responsibility of the government to help the vagrant children," said Zang Shengye, mayor of Shijiazhuang. "The more shelters we build today, the less jails we will need to build in the future."
The city government of Shijiazhuang has allocated more than 40 million yuan (US$4.84 million) to the center, which can accommodate over 300 children.
Children adopted by the center, aged from seven to 16, are well-fed and clothed, and the government pays 150 yuan monthly for each kid.
Teaching programs are arranged in line with their age and educational backgrounds, and those who do well in examinations are sent to normal schools.
The center also has special courses in using computers, cooking and hairdressing, among other subjects.
"This is a place where street children can enjoy the affection and care of a family, continue their studies, take part in cultural and recreational activities and master skills," said Ju Qing, deputy head of the Law Institute under the China Youth and Children Research Center, who has made a special study of the Shijiazhuang center.
Zhang Taoshuai, a 13-year-old boy at the center, said he loved the center very much as "the teachers here are like mothers".
He said, "I want to run such a center when I grow up and let all street kids have a home."
Over recent years, 128 shelters providing short-term protection and education for street kids have been built in China's big and medium-sized cities, said Jiang Yue'e, an official with the Women and Children Work Committee of the State Council.
All these shelter centers are funded by the civil affairs departments and local governments.
China has seen an increased number of street children in urban areas in the past few years, resulting from a growing migrant population, a higher divorce rate and a growing gap between poor and rich and between rural and urban residents, and different regions.
Ministry of Civil Affairs figures show that China registered approximately 150,000 street children annually in the past three years.
The Chinese government has adopted a series of laws and regulations to tackle the problem, including the Law on the Protection of Minors and the Law on the Prevention of Crimes by Minors.
A set of regulations on offering shelters and assistance to vagrants in cities took effect in August this year. The regulations have specific stipulations on the responsibilities and measures government organs should take in helping street kids.
As a signatory state of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, China has drafted its own program on the development of children, promising to improve the subsistence levels of children, including vagrant children.
Meanwhile, China is improving international cooperation to help the street kids.
Starting 2001, the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs, the United Nations Children's Fund and other international organizations launched a program in the cities of Zhengzhou and Changsha, under which foster families are set up to help street kids clear their minds of hostility towards society.
Such families, which are formed by one or two workers who have been trained in psychology and health care, and five to six homeless children, are designed to guarantee a normal daily life and children can, if they want, live in the "family" until they turn 18.
In 2002, the Women and Children Work Committee of the State Council launched a protect-the-rights-of-vagrant-children program, arousing neighborhood communities and volunteers to help local homeless children.
Many citizens in Shijiazhuang have joined the effort to help vagrant children by acting as "weekend parents", acting as "parents" for homeless children and bringing them home at weekends.
At present, 11 children in the Shijiazhuang Children's Protection and Education Center have "weekend parents".
"We just want to let homeless children enjoy the love and care of a family," said Bai Jieman, one of the "weekend mothers".
"Whether you can find your own parents and go back home, you are sure to have a nice future since you now have 'parents' who truly care about you," Janet Amegatcher, a lawyer with the Ghana International Youth Shelter Foundation, told "Xiaodengzi", a 13-year-old boy, at the Shijiazhuang Children Protection and Education Center, during a recent visit.
Xiaodengzi's "weekend parents" are a couple of servicemen.
(Xinhua News Agency November 5, 2003)